Is it possible to transform the centre of Athens? Having covered all angles when discussing the problems and the discomfort caused by the current situation, what else is there to do? In a time of deep economic recession, Athens is called to find a different way to solve its problems and claim a place amongst today’s major European metropolises.
Within the framework of its public benefit activity, the Onassis Foundation responds to the present need for a reviving project by funding and organizing a European Architectural Competition for the creation of a new city centre for Athens, focusing on and around Panepistimiou Street. The objective of this initiative is to improve the everyday life of Athenian citizens, allowing the accomplishment of the vision for quality of life in the Greek capital.
Nowhere in the world a unique avenue of an emblematic metropolis with a rich architecture, quality of images, variety of functions that could promote the city’s competitiveness, has been reserved exclusively for traffic. Panepistimiou Street has been transformed into a mere driveway and the result is depressing, especially if one thinks of the whole downgrading of the centre of Athens. Deprived of contemporary models and inspiring proposals that could reverse the situation, the financial and administrative centre of the city is forced to an environmental, social and financial disaster. Even the infamous “trilogy” area that consists of the wonderful architectural ensemble upon which the character of the city is reflected, is subject to downgrading, thus proving that the crisis has spread from the Gerani area and Omonoia Square to Panepistimiou Street. Today, more than ever, we have the right to become visionaries while remaining realists. This is the right time to re-think Athens.
Europe supports the attractiveness of European cities through new funding programs that focus on the concept of a “creative” Europe. In their effort to distinguish themselves, cities highlight their advantages, give life to their visions and organize themselves based on cultural networks. Their interest focuses on quality of life, trying to become more people-friendly, combining work, personal life and pleasure. Aiming at a sustainable mobility, central areas and main arteries become pedestrian zones, creating a different, attractive, cosmopolitan urban geography. Similarly, Athens can take an important step towards breathing life into the centre, forming a different perception for the upgrade and re-organization of its public space.
The “Re-think-Athens” project is a multifaceted intervention centered on Panepistimiou street, extending from Amalias Avenue to Patission Street and ending at a brand new Omonoia Square. Its main objective is to stop the increasing downgrading and to revive the centre of Athens with multiple functions related to trade, services, housing, entertainment and culture while simultaneously encouraging several activities. The intervention at Amalias Avenue, Omonoia Square and Patission Street will form a ring that will link the pedestrian zone of Dionysius Areopagitus and the new Acropolis Museum with the Archaeological Museum and Omonoia Square with the areas of Monastiraki and Thisseio, thus connecting the liveliness of the modern city with the archaeological sites and tourism.
The idea for the creation of a new city centre centered on Panepistimiou Street is quite old. The “Re-think-Athens” intervention offers a contemporary, fundamental change of habits in the way we use the city by placing people in the centre of things. The value of the area is too high to be used solely as a means of transit for cars. The centre can be accessed by public transportation, it can reconnect its distant areas thus resulting in a creative dialogue among its parts and it can transform its present drawbacks into places of value, highlighting its modern face. The quest for quality upon forming this contemporary profile leads to the search for a form of architecture that can introduce the incorporation of sustainable development in the city, in a decisive, creative and innovative way. For this reason, this European competition has been announced, aiming to collect proposals that will awaken, inspire and reveal options that reflect the character of the city and promote a healthy albeit futuristic image of a lively metropolis that keeps evolving.
A crucial question is: can we cope with the implementation cost of this intervention? Yes, we can, because the project will be financed with European funds designed for integrated interventions which aim at improving the competitiveness of cities without depriving them of projects that will be implemented through other programmes. The consequences of the increasing devastation and decline of the city centre are, undoubtedly, even more costly. The architectural reorganization of the public space is a low cost project of approximately 25 million euros. The expenditure on the tram line project is much higher albeit rewarding. The total cost of the intervention, which includes the tramline ending at Ano Patissia, will not exceed 200 million euros (VAT included). This amount corresponds to the cost of a major highway interchange.
In any case, there is an urgent need to formulate a wide visional and sustainable proposal for the reconstruction of the city centre, formed during a crucial period where social, economic, political, demographic and ecological challenges are seeking a way out. This vision is worth to be built with an open mind, unaffected by conventional eliminations in order to lead to wonderful and unexpected versions of the city centre. Thus, it must be powerful and convincing and it should be accompanied by a complete change in the way we have been using the centre of the city during the last few decades, adopting modern practices.
Furthermore, the intervention in and around Panepistimiou Street, will link smaller individual or collective creative interventions and initiatives regarding the city centre. It marks the shift in perception in relation to traffic around the centre of the city, because today the conditions that define traffic design are different since they focus on the prevention of intersections. The city centre should be enjoyed by its citizens and thus a development that takes into consideration not only the deadlocks but the actual circumstances as well should be achieved.The reconstruction of the centre reflects city life as a giant kaleidoscope that attracts attention and adds value to the city. A vibrant place of high interest, a place with an intense pulse, with a 24-hour tram operation and with the Omonoia Square as its heart, will be a creative response to the crisis, will give life back to trade and will improve the quality of life at the city centre, so that it is re-inhabited and it reclaims its past dynamic.
The city centre will no longer be just a car crossing space. It can and should be the destination for more people to enjoy walking and spending time there. The new public space will be the breeding ground for all activities of the centre, where the various expressions of everyday life, with places of public services, entertainment and play for all ages and for all people, without exclusions, will be developed.
So, let us ‘Re-think-Athens’; after all, there is no better way to predict the future than to design it ourselves!